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Closed mikes

Technology | Upcoming wireless signal sale has churches and others worried about losing sound

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

Churches, theaters, and the National Football League may compete for attendance on weekends, but they’re allies when it comes to wireless microphones.

In a regulatory tussle with the Federal Communications Commission, the three groups have united in defense of the wireless mikes they use to relay sermons, songs, and calls from football coaches and referees. Some of the airspace, or “spectrum,” used to transmit mike signals is in danger of being pushed aside to make room for America’s ever-expanding network of cellphones and connected mobile devices.

Presently, two slices of spectrum are reserved especially for wireless microphones and in-ear monitors. Other channels are reserved for broadcast television and radio stations, mobile phones, emergency communications systems, and a variety of wireless gadgets (like Wi-Fi routers and car lock remotes) intended to make our lives more convenient.

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The demand for spectrum has increased as telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon have expanded their mobile networks and rolled out new broadband technology. To reallocate airspace efficiently among emerging technologies, the FCC plans next year to auction off spectrum, in the expectation that many smaller TV stations will willingly sell off their slice of sky to telecom giants eager to pay millions of dollars for it.

But the FCC wants to use every portion of airspace possible, and that may put wireless mikes in the squeeze. Already, the two channels dedicated to wireless mikes can only host about 6 mikes apiece—or about a dozen using more expensive models. That’s enough for smaller churches, but not for some megachurches and large theaters, where even the stage crews communicate wirelessly.

Now the FCC is considering auctioning off all or parts of the two microphone channels. If that happens, audio teams could have to operate some or all of their mikes on “white space”—portions of airspace available for public use. The problem is manufacturers are slowly developing a new generation of devices that also operate in white space and could cause interference. These new devices include traffic cameras and utility “smart meters.” Soon, new mobile consumer electronics may also start using white space, further crowding the airwaves.

“If I’m using a microphone in a church there might be a device a block or two away on top of a watertower that interferes with my microphone,” says Chris Lyons, a representative for Shure, a company that makes wireless equipment popular among secular and Christian musicians. When interference occurs, sound drops out, much like a spotty cellphone call.

Shure, along with the NFL and theater groups, petitioned the FCC in January to reserve sufficient airspace for high-quality sound. Although Shure has a variety of mike technologies to deal with limited airspace, some are pricey: One system packs 17 mikes into a single channel, but each mike can cost $1,500 or more.

Churches are still recuperating from 2010, when the FCC last revised microphone airspace, forcing many churches to upgrade their equipment. Todd Elliott, the technical arts director at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., told me the church spent $100,000 or more buying new equipment in 2010. Willow Creek uses 50 to 70 wireless mikes and monitors on a typical Sunday throughout its main campus, which hosts a weekly attendance of about 16,000 in various adult and children’s programs. It’s already a juggling act to coordinate all the frequencies. Elliott is watching closely to see what the FCC does next.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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